Old habits die hard

by Keith Nunes
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In evaluating the dinner daypart from a macro perspective it is easy to see the underlying theme — The more things change, the more they stay the same. Social and economic trends may affect what’s for dinner, but they do little to change how consumers approach it.

"Things don’t move quickly; habits are hard to break," said Harry Balzer, vice-president of the NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. "Overall, consumers will eat dinner in their homes. It’s been that way for the past 20 years. What is changing is who and even how that meal will be prepared.

"For years, the most likely meal preparer in the home has been the female head of the house. A driving force around dinner time has been how that woman can get out of the job."

Mr. Balzer said one indicator of how the situation is evolving is cooking by the male head of the household is at an all-time high.

"In 18% of households with couples, the man took care of the meal," he said. "Coincidentally, grilling has reached an all-time high — 38% of households fire up the grill at least once in a two-week period."

The emergence of food service take-out, heat-and-eat entrees, and even pizza delivery are also an extension of the trend. As more women entered the workforce there has been less time to prepare a meal. So the fundamental definition of "cooking" has evolved from the combining of raw ingredients and cooking them to create a meal from scratch to heating food in a microwave.

"In 1989, for the first time, more meals were bought at restaurants and taken home," Mr. Balzer said. "The restaurant became a meal preparer and for the past 25 years has benefited as the source for packaged meals as opposed to packaged foods, which you get from supermarkets."

But changes appear to be occurring. According to The NPD Group, the percentage of women working has held steady or declined since 1999 after climbing steadily for two decades.

"This new generation of women is exercising their right to stay home," Mr. Balzer said. "This is having a profound affect on eating patterns. Without more women working, it puts a damper on household incomes. Families are looking for cheaper ways to feed themselves, but are still looking for ways to get out of cooking."

Eric LeBlanc, director of marketing for food service retailing solutions for Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, Ark., added, "What we seem to be seeing with the stabilization of women in the workforce is stabilization in the number of meals eaten outside the home. That has been trending upwards but has hit a plateau.

"One of the things causing this is a social dynamic. For the past five consecutive quarters the food service daypart has been suffering in the weekday dinner out category. We are seeing a loss in that field across the board. They are losing the fight for dinner.

"Winning at dinner are retailers who have a real opportunity to catch the Monday to Friday dinner. During the week people are not as likely to reach outside the home and go to a full service restaurant."

Mr. LeBlanc cautioned against calling events that have occurred during the past five quarters a trend and emphasized there are other factors affecting the dinner daypart.

"Another social dynamic is people are eating out less right now for economic reasons," Mr. LeBlanc said. "If you look at (the different) housing markets and where the greatest percentage decline in home values is occurring, those are the areas where we are seeing the greatest decline in dining out. What you have is as the value of people’s homes decreases it affects their sense of affluence and they spend their money more conservatively. Our expectation is this trend will hold for a while longer."

Several recent product introductions by Tyson Foods underscore how the company is responding to the change in consumer purchasing patterns. In late September, the company extended its line of Refrigerated Heat ‘N Eat Entrees to include fully-cooked chicken breast medallions in Italian herb sauce, chicken breast medallions in white wine and garlic sauce and beef steak tips in bourbon sauce.

"We’re excited about these products and believe they’ll help meet the need of consumers who want the taste and quality of an upscale meal, but don’t have the time to make it from scratch," said Scott McNair, group vice-president of consumer products for Tyson Foods. "Our research shows consumers love the unique flavors of these new dinner meats, which can be prepared and ready to serve in a matter of minutes. Consumers also appreciate the versatility of the products, viewing them as appropriate for quick meals, family meals or sit-down dinners."

Karren Peters, director of marketing for Tyson’s convenience meats products, said the company used its food service division to develop the new products and make them restaurant-quality.

"These products appeal to an older consumer, an older couple who may have children who have left the home," she said. "They don’t have a lot of time to cook a meal from scratch, but want upscale products like what they would get in a restaurant."

Further capitalizing on the trends of convenience and eating in the home, Tyson Foods also launched its Any’Tizer line of products in July. They may be eaten as appetizers but also may be used for almost any eating occasion, such as an afternoon or late night snack or as a light meal.

Catelli Brothers, a meat processor based in Collingswood, N.J., also has expanded its efforts to provide restaurant-quality meals by extending its line of Italian Bistro meal kits to include chicken piccata, chicken parmigiana and chicken marsala.

"It’s all about convenience and quality," said Tony Catelli, president and chief executive officer. "Many people enjoy their Italian favorites at restaurants, but not at home since some are unsure of how to create these dishes on their own. The Italian Bistro products alleviate that uncertainty and provide a high-quality in-home dining experience."

Mr. Balzer noted the recent rise in food prices may have an effect on where consumers purchase their meals.

"As food prices go up it will have a negative affect on supermarket purchases," he said. "Supermarket prices rise faster than restaurant prices. So if prices continue to rise we may see more people eating out."

Mr. LeBlanc said despite the current shift in purchasing patterns, food service operators are not going to lose market share during the work week quietly.

"We will see those folks coming out with innovative ideas to redeem the traffic they have lost," he said.

Mr. Balzer said people often mistake a successful trial, whether it is a new product or restaurant concept, as a trend.

"With regards to food, people want two things — for it to make their lives easier and to save them money," he said. "It would be great if it did both of those things."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 16, 2007, starting on Page 31. Click here to search that archive.

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